Essential oils are the aromatic properties that have been extracted from plants, flowers and other botanicals. They have been used for millennia to treat various health concerns as well as to enhance wellbeing, and many have natural antibacterial, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Today, the practice of aromatherapy – using essential oils to improve physical and psychological wellbeing – is still very popular, and essential oils are often used in spa and massage treatments, to manage stress, and to help promote sleep. There is also an increasing move towards using essential oils in beauty and cosmetic products, harnessing their natural healing properties as an alternative to synthetic chemicals and additives.
The general consensus is that when used correctly, essential oils pose little risk. However, some practitioners/aromatherapists have advised against using certain oils due to the potential adverse effects that could result from their misuse, and a specific point of contention is exactly how safe essential oils are to use during pregnancy.
ARE ESSENTIAL OILS SAFE WHEN USED IN BEAUTY AND COSMETIC PRODUCTS?
Essential oils are far more concentrated and potent than their original plant form, and so a little goes a long way. As essential oils are so pure, they are not safe to apply directly to skin and must always be diluted with a carrier base oil, and should never be ingested. Whether using essential oils yourself, or buying products that claim to contain essential oils, you should always also be mindful of an oil’s quality. Unless you’ve bought your products from Wellbeing Sisters, in which case we’ve done all the checking for you, make sure that the oils in the ingredients lists are definitely from a natural source, as opposed to being ‘fragrance oils’ which are synthetic.
One way to do this is to look for the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) names, which is the botanical or scientific name of an essential oil, usually written in Latin. It will help you to identify exactly what a product or oil contains, and allow you to find out where it comes from, as different essential oils can be extracted from many parts of the same plant (including flowers, leaves, roots, fruits, grasses, and seeds to name a few). Oils extracted from different parts of the same plant can function very differently, so it’s always worthwhile checking.
Essential oils can also be broken down into their constituent parts – the natural chemical compounds they are made up of, such as limonene, citral and farnesol. These compounds can also be found in the herbs, plants, vegetables, fruits and spices that we eat. Limonene, for example, is found in many citrus essential oils, and is also present in citrus fruits, mangoes, carrots, and celery. You will often see these constituents highlighted on a product ingredient list, with a note to indicate when their presence is due to a natural source, such as essential oils.
When it comes to health, beauty and cosmetic products containing essential oils, any concerns and risk surrounding their use usually boils down to their potency, which constituents they contain, and how much of these constituents you are exposed to.
Often, when adverse effects from using an essential oil have been reported, they have been caused by an oil’s constituents. This is especially true of citrus-based oils, for example, bergamot oil, which contains citral. Citral has photosensitive effects, making you more susceptible to sunburn – so you shouldn’t smother on your bergamot face oil then head out into the sunshine without adequate UV protection. Most cosmetic and personal care products will have usage guidelines taking into account the way these compounds function, so always follow the manufacturer’s instructions to be safe.
Another common issue raised with essential oils is their reported skin-sensitising effects and potential for causing allergic reactions, such as itchiness and rashes. Compounds like linalool and eugenol, which are found in several essential oils, have been linked to these problems when used in high concentrations.
To help protect against any sensitising effects such as these, essential oil volume for cosmetics is limited to between 0-4% concentration in a product, which is regulated in Europe by the European Commission. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) additionally recommends that for products applied to areas of skin exposed to sunshine, certain photosensitive oils actually be limited to a maximum of 0.4%. The EU Cosmetics Regulation also states that any potential allergens must be declared on any packaging.
THE USE OF ESSENTIAL OILS WHEN TRYING TO CONCEIVE (TTC) AND DURING PREGNANCY
The evidence on the safety of essential oils when used in pregnancy is by no means clear cut. This is because during pregnancy an individual’s skin may become more sensitive, making them more susceptible to any sensitising effects. It is also because historically, the plants that some essential oils are derived from, and/or their constituents, have been noted to have effects that could be harmful during pregnancy.
Certain essential oils are thought to have diuretic effects, which are potentially harmful to pregnant women. Others are considered to have emmenagogic effects, meaning they stimulate blood flow to the uterus, and are thought to have the potential to bring on menstruation and/or contractions. The worry is that use of these oils could therefore trigger a miscarriage. Although it is actually the plants that the essential oils are derived from that are classed as emmenagogic or diuretic, the mechanisms of precisely how this works on the human body are not very well understood, which is why a ‘steer clear’ warning on essential oils from these sources is often issued for pregnant women.
Indeed, there are historical accounts of females ingesting essential oils or herbal remedies in high doses (particularly pennyroyal, which is never used in cosmetics, topical products or aromatherapy practices) in the early 20th century in an attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy. These accounts have led to the widespread and long-held belief that certain essential oils are unsafe for use in pregnancy, however, there are no reports of abortive symptoms or dangers to a foetus arising from the intended and correct use of essential oils. Like any medicinal product, dose plays a vital role in potential toxicity, meaning negative effects will only be seen once a certain threshold has been passed. Given that most topical products only contain between 1-4% essential oils, it is thought to be extremely unlikely that that they would ever be of a high enough dose to elicit these kind of bodily responses, but without categorical evidence (which would be both unethical and unsafe to gather!) it has of course been best to exercise caution.
Depending on what source you consult, there can be some variation as to which essential oils are considered ‘unsafe’ for use when trying to conceive (TTC) and pregnant, and most guidance is around the use of essential oils in aromatherapy practices such as whole body body massage. In the UK, the NHS uses essential oils to treat a wide variety of problems, but does not publish any definitive guidelines itself when it comes to using these oils during pregnancy. Some individual NHS trusts do have their own local guidelines, and advise against the use of certain essential oils in pregnancy, but this guidance may vary depending on where you live. Other organisations however, consider that given the small percentage of essential oils actually used in aromatherapy oils and treatments (between 1-5%), having a blanket ‘banned list’ approach is an out-of-date practice based on anecdotal evidence.
The International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists (IFPA) urges its practitioners to hold in mind that the human body is intelligent, and no stranger to breaking down essential oil components, which are found in many everyday foods. Specifically discussing the use of essential oils in massage (i.e. used in carrier oils without other ingredients), the IFPA recommends that any essential oils used in pregnancy only be done so at a dilution of 1% or less. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) states it concurs with the IFPA guidelines, but also that the use of essential oils in pregnancy is not fully understood, and that it would be best to adhere to general safety guidelines – that most aromatherapy oil blends between 1 – 5% dilutions typically does not represent a safety concern. They also highlight a list of 14 oils published on its own website that it suggests should be avoided throughout pregnancy entirely (none of which you will find in any of the products available in the Wellbeing Sisters shop!).
When it comes to essential oil safety in pregnancy and when TTC, only you can decide what feels comfortable for you and what you are happy to use. If you do decide to use products containing essential oils, following general safety guidelines and ensuring you only come into contact with well-diluted essential oils (which cosmetic and personal-care products are) is advised.
WELLBEING SISTERS RECOMMENDATIONS ON ESSENTIAL OIL USE FOR ALL WOMEN, INCLUDING THOSE WHO ARE TRYING TO CONCEIVE (TTC) AND PREGNANT:
Here at Wellbeing Sisters, we believe that in accordance with the guidance outlined above, products containing less than 4% of all essential oils (except those detailed HERE) are generally safe to use for everyone, including women who are TTC and pregnant.
If a product contains over 4% essential oils, we advise against use whilst TTC or pregnant. Where a product contains over 4% essential oils, you will find the following statement, ‘Do not use in pregnancy or when trying to conceive’ in the additional information section, with a link to this article.
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ABOUT THE EDITOR
Aimée has a background in Forensic Psychology, working as a family therapist before becoming an editor for Penguin Random House. Specialising in non-fiction, she has edited bestselling books from world-class experts in their field. Most recently she has commissioned self-help titles covering natural remedies, parenting, and mindfulness.